Bluffs in Isla Vista.
The recommendation to raise fence heights along the Isla Vista bluffs is part of county Supervisor Laura Capps’ eight-point plan to improve safety. (Rebecca Caraway / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider recommendations to raise fence height requirements along the bluffs in Isla Vista and waive permitting fees for property owners adding or raising fencing. 

The idea to raise the fence height comes from Supervisor Laura Capps’ eight-point plan to improve bluff safety, which she announced Sept. 28.

Her office began working on a plan for safety improvements with the Isla Vista Community Services District, property owners and community-based groups after the death of Benjamin “Benny” Schurmer, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in theater arts at SBCC, who died after falling from the Isla Vista cliffs over Labor Day weekend.

On Tuesday, the board will be asked to approve budget revisions to go toward fence improvements. The first of two revisions is to set aside $180,000 in order to provide funding for the IVCSD and the Parks Division to fund and revise existing bluff fencing to 6 feet and to work with consultants on landscape design and lighting in collaboration with Isla Vista stakeholders, according to a board agenda letter.

The board will be asked to approve an additional budget revision of $100,000 so that the director of planning and development can waive permitting fees for installation and improvements of fencing and railings for private property owners along the bluffs in Isla Vista, according to the board letter.

The funding will be used only for permit applications to install new fencing or railings of 6 feet or to raise existing fencing or railings to 6 feet to properties on the bluff top, according to the board letter.

Raising the fence height along Del Playa, which has about 70 privately owned residential buildings and a number of county parks, has been identified as a crucial way to prevent further cliff falls. 

Currently, fences in county parks are 4 feet and on residential properties the fence height requirement is 3½ feet. The amendment seeks to raise the fences to a minimum of 6 feet in county parks and residential properties along the bluffs. 

Capps told Noozhawk that updating fencing and providing an easy way for property owners to improve fencing along the bluffs has been a big priority for the county and is the first step toward safety improvements. 

“I want to make these changes quickly because we never know what actions we’re preventing — that’s the nature of prevention,” Capps said. “I’m hopeful that by getting these fence heights done as quickly as possibly we’ll hopefully prevent these accidents from happening.”

Capps said she’s been spending a lot of time in Isla Vista while working on this issue and walked around with sheriff’s deputies on a recent night.  

“I was happy to see people enjoying themselves, but I was just struck by how many people are there and what that means for the odds that something bad might happen accidentally,” Capps told Noozhawk. “When you combine thousands of people in the dark, near a cliff, drinking and partying, it’s just kind of an inevitable combination for accidents to occur.”

The board letter also identifies having public restrooms along the buffs as a way to enhance safety. A number of portable restrooms have been placed along Del Playa following Schurmer’s death. Capps’ office is exploring the possibility of adding more permanent bathrooms, according to the board letter.

The rest of Capps’ safety plan includes recommendations on lighting, warning signs, education, horticulture, a memorial for fall victims, and updates to county social hosts ordinances and outdoor festival ordinances, which the Sheriff’s Office is scheduled to bring to the board later this month.

Cliff safety has been a longtime concern of the community but gained serious attention after Schurmer passed. There have been 13 known deaths as a result of cliff falls since 1994. The IVCSD started a cliff safety campaign in 2022 after the death of Chasen Alibrando. 

On Oct. 10, the IVCSD reviewed Capps’ plan with the community and endorsed the recommendations at its board meeting. 

Tuesday’s meeting will be held in the board hearing room of the Joseph Centeno Betteravia Government Administration Building, 511 E. Lakeside Pkwy. in Santa Maria. Residents can share their thoughts with the board during the public comment period in person or via Zoom.